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Crisis Reveals Character

A while back I was at my daughter’s (my sun in the trio) Rube Goldberg demonstration day at school. The students were thoroughly excited to show off their creations and good-natured laughs were had by all…even when things did not go quite as expected (ok, especially when things did not go as expected). After all the kids had had their turns putting their machines to the test, a guest engineer stood up to address the crowd. Something he said while attempting to inspire those young minds stuck in my head. It was something I had heard on other occasions in the past, but for whatever reason this particular time it lodged itself somewhere up there in my grey matter for future consideration. Crisis reveals character. He had said it in the context of how the kids had felt and reacted when they were building their machines and realized that the deadline for the demonstration was upon them…and again when they were actually demonstrating their creations and things did not go exactly as planned. I’ll admit I do not remember the speech in its entirety (I don’t do all that well in noisy crowded rooms), but the saying popped back into mind a couple days later, jarred by something Little Man did (well…admittedly, it was the idea of the saying that popped. As a close friend can attest, it took me a good day and a half to coax the exact words of the saying itself back out of the folds of grey matter with some help from Google searches of “sayings about pressure situations showing who we really are” and the occasional face palm and malediction of my evermore fickle memory.). It started me thinking about how different my children are from one another (thankfully…I love variety!) even though they have all been raised together…and how crisis, or stress, or unforeseen challenges in general tend to highlight some of their differences. On the occasion in question, Little Man had been flitting about the master bedroom, as I stood nearby folding laundry on the bed. I heard a soft thud and down he went with a yelp, grasping at his left foot. He had apparently stubbed his toe on the leg of the bed (aka: moment of crisis…Little Man scale crisis).

He looked up at me and declared, “why don’t beds float? We should make beds that float!”

Or you could pay more attention to where you are walking, I thought.

I briefly considered offering this advice out loud, but could tell by the look in his eye that his mind was already engaged in working out his design for floating beds. Crisis reveals character. Little Man likes to think outside the box when he is in crisis or faced with a challenge (that, or completely melt down…he is only seven after all). His solutions are not always my favorites (I do not think the shower curtain is a viable substitute when the toilet paper suddenly runs out, for example, nor is the empty tube itself); they are not always feasible (though going back in time and being born before The Sisters may very well solve some of your immediate problems, you don’t have a way of making that happen…yet), but they are always creative (yes, pulling your shirt all the way up to the neck in the back and using the front as a sack did, in fact, enable you to gather more balls at a time after tennis class, despite the giggles it evoked).

My oldest, my moon, has a completely different way of reacting to crisis and overcoming challenges. When she was younger, she was prone to panic…utter palpable heart seizing panic. Over the years she has been able to hone her reactions and now choses to withdraw while she figures things out. She draws; she writes; she drowns out the world with music;  she twirls her hair (something passed down from my grandmother); she disappears like a badger into its den. This is how she works things out, internally and preferably in isolation. She prefers to run scenarios in her head a million times, worrying over all the possible “what ifs”, before she cautiously applies her solutions in the real world, all the while painfully aware of any outside observation. I know it is better not to approach the den unless absolutely necessary, and instead do my best to standby advice in hand. I try to wait for my window, since experience has shown me that, with her, premature advice offering usually becomes a battle of words…that ultimately end up falling on deaf ears. Perhaps it should not have taken me as long as it did to figure this out…she is a lot like I was. But, the views are very different from the positions of advice giver and that of potential receiver. It has taken a bit to orient myself.

My middle child, my sun, at times faces crisis like raging ball of fire, at times she melts into despair. She leads with her emotions and passion is her sword. I have been cut by this sword, while attempting to teach her to wield it a little more selectively. She follows her initial defensive strokes with an offense of creativity…and the rest looks like an older version of Little Man’s a little left of center solutions. Once, after an explosive and desperate rant about a funny smell in her room (which only she could detect), I discovered, to my dismay, that she had decided resolve the problem by borrowing her sister’s deodorant and rubbing it vigorously into her window screen so that the fragrance would flood the room at each slight breeze (nice smell…BIG mess). She, like Little Man, prefers to jump right in and try out her solutions in a less thought-out trial-by-error fashion. What do you do when you are in preschool, have finished your art project, are becoming terribly bored and find yourself with scissors still in hand? I remember how very relieved I had been upon hearing that it was her own hair that she had cut and not the cherished locks of some other child. What if your art supplies have yet to be unpacked and you absolutely need to express yourself post-haste? Well, it would seem that the fireplace offers an abundant supply of the perfect medium with which a budding artist can adorn the available canvas…aka living room floor. Thankfully, with the passing of each year she makes the strides in judgement that come with maturity and learns more and more to finesse her intense passion into an effective problem solving tool. She still has a ways to go, but each challenge offers her the opportunity to improve.

Crisis reveals character. As much as I adore seeing my children content and serene, I know it is just as, if not more, important to see them in crisis and to stay out of the way as they try to solve their problems and work their ways out of difficult situations. It is important and also enlightening to see their different creative styles and to watch them develop their individual characters. Of course, I know I need to be there to guide them on this journey and it is still necessary, at times, to step in and help. For the most part, though, as hard as it may be to watch them struggle…to see them fail, I realize I would be doing them a disfavor if I were to constantly fix things for them or to extract them from difficult situations altogether even when that would be the easier (and less painful as a mom) path. Crisis reveals character not solely to those around them…it also allows them a glimpse inside themselves…and not only does it reveal character: crisis also builds character.

They will need this in the future to face a world that is not always kind. It will be both their armor, a layer of protection, and a source of inner strength. The more experience they build up over time, the better prepared they will be to reach deep inside themselves in times of need and to trust in their own resilience. Of course, I would love for them to always be happy and for life to always be fair, but the fact of the matter is…no matter how wonderful of a support system they have constructed around themselves, there will eventually be people in their lives who will let them down in a profound way. They will fail at something which will seem devastating in the moment. Their problems will seem insurmountable and they will need to fall back on the experiences they have accumulated over time to get through those moments. Each little challenge they face today (even those that may seem silly through the eyes of an adult) is an opportunity for them to test themselves, perhaps fail, perhaps succeed, in a safe environment: an opportunity for them to build up their armor.

I am not insinuating that any of this is easy for me…or for any parent. It certainly is not enjoyable to see one’s children in difficulty or upset. However, as Little Man once told me when he was watching one of his nature shows on tv, it was getting a little intense (think cheetah about to tackle and dismember cute little baby gazelle), and I asked if maybe he wanted to watch something else: “It’s LIFE Mamma. Get used to it.”

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